Thursday, November 29, 2007

Table Talk - Vayeshev 5768

What makes a crime a capitol offense? How bad must an act be to rise to the level that merits the death penalty? In reality, the action itself matters. But so does the identity of the perpetrator.

As Yosef languishes in prison, we learn about the tragic fortunes of the royal baker and vintner. They find themselves thrown into prison awaiting trial for seemingly heinous, terrible crimes. What did they do? What crimes did they commit? The Torah only tells us that חטאו – “they sinned,” לאדניהם מלך מצרים – “to their master, the king of Egypt.” (40:1) Rashi explains that a fly fell into the royal goblet and a stone landed in the royal bread.

Siftei Chachamim – a commentary on Rashi explains that from their punishments we can discover their crimes. The fly in the wine wasn’t necessarily the fault of the vintner, so the Pharoh restores him to his position. But the stone in the bread is only due to the baker’s negligence, so he gets the death penalty.

That’s it? A fly in the wine and a rock in the bread – and they’re thrown in jail? Doesn’t that seem somewhat extreme? Not really – because these men work not in a local bar or bakery, but in the royal palace. They serve the king. They enjoy the status of “Royal Baker” and “Royal Vintner,” and with that status come responsibility and obligation. The greater the honor and distinction, the higher the stakes grow, and the greater the consequences for even seemingly small slip-ups.

Imagine if they worked not for the king of Egypt, but the King of Kings!

Friday, November 23, 2007

An Alternative Chanukah Gift Guide

I remember it like it was yesterday. Sitting in a hospice room in Hartford Hospital, Bill Schulman (not his real name – but the story is true) lay dead in the bed next to me as I waited, together with Bill’s wife for the funeral home to come, and for Bill’s son to arrive from France. When her son finally arrived, we sat down at the small table to talk about funeral plans. As we began talking, Bill’s son stopped the conversation and asked a question (with his father still lying there in the room) that I’ll never forget: “When can we probate the will?”

I wondered what could make a person so selfish, self-centered and crass. Bill’s son answered my question, albeit unknowingly, during the shiva. Speaking lovingly about his father he told me, “We were always the first ones on the block to have anything. We had the first basketball hoop, the first color television – my father always bought us anything we wanted.” Indeed.

America celebrates its holidays – especially the religious ones – by doing what we do best. We buy stuff. I feel bad for Christian clergy. After all, America has transformed one of their holiest holidays of the year into a crass commercial extravaganza that now begins the day after Thanksgiving. We can’t even digest our turkey properly, as we have to rise at 5am to beat the crowds for the doorbusters. We all get “gift guides” in the mail: in newspapers, magazines, catalogues, brochures and mailings of all shapes and colors. And this commercialism colors our attitude towards our own holidays as well. Who doesn’t buy Chanukah gifts for their children or grandchildren? Do gifts have anything to do with Chanukah at all? And, most importantly, if we’re going to give gifts, what should we give that will enhance, and not detract from the greater message of Chanukah?

In all honesty, Chanukah gifts fly in the face of everything that the holiday represents. At the same time though, I must admit that I will be buying and giving my own children presents this Chanukah. Why? For three reasons: my parents gave me presents on Chanukah, my kids expect them, and it’s not fair to make them the only children in town who did not get anything for Chanukah. We have ingrained the notion of “presents” too deeply into our social consciousness to ignore them completely. But if we do give gifts, we can use those gifts to both express our love, and convey values that we hold dear.

First and foremost, gifts should be expressions of affection. They should not only say, “I love you,” but “I care about you and your interests.” For that reason, I’ve never been a big fan of giving money as a gift (unless the recipient really needs the money to cover expenses). A gift of money conveys the clear message that “I don’t really know what you want, so go buy it yourself.” But that check also says, “I couldn’t think about what you’d want and go out and purchase that thing for you. So get it yourself” If you’re giving a child or grandchild money for their college fund – great! But otherwise, think about what they like; their hobbies or interests and values – and get them something that matches those interests. If they don’t like it, let them return it (and don’t be hurt). At the very least, they’ll appreciate the fact that you took the time and energy to find something specifically for them. And when the item is gone – or lost or broken – the value of that time and thought and energy investment will endure.

If you’re buying something for a child, I have come to realize that our kids have way, way too much stuff. From electronics to games to music to toys, they have so many things that they don’t use a vast majority of them. Today’s latest and greatest device will by lying on the shelf next by next week. They don’t need another cellphone, or video game or television. So why not give a gift of time: get them a lesson with a tennis instructor, or tokens to the batting cages; tickets to a concert of a (kosher) musician or take them to a sporting event. And then take them there yourself – and give them time alone with a parent – which is what many kids really want most anyway. That way, when the game is over, the memory will endure but not gather dust in their room.

Finally, we often find ourselves trying to buy gifts for people who don’t really need anything – usually adults. What can you give to someone who – if he or she wants something – can and will go out and buy that thing themselves? You can give them something. You can value what they value. When I want to thank someone for a favor or give them a gift – and they really don’t want anything from me, I have found that a great gift is giving to a tzedakah that they like in their honor. That gesture (a) really does help others (b) is a great way to spend money and (c) strongly conveys to the recipient that I not only value them, but their values as well. That, to my mind, is a great gift.

Gift-giving season can be challenging, strenuous and difficult – even if you didn’t get up at 4am on Black Friday. But, with thought, care and consideration, giving gifts can be an opportunity not only to make our loved ones happier – but to make them better people as well.

Have a wonderful, warm, light and meaningful Chanukah!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Table Talk - Vayishlach 5768

As Ya’akov approaches the Land of Cana’an on his return home, he learns of Eisav’s plans to meet him on the road. Concerned about Eisav’s intentions, Ya’akov sends gifts to Eisav with a message of peace and goodwill. Yet, when the messengers return with the news of Eisav’s four hundred men, Ya’akov becomes truly afraid. ויירא יעקב מאד ויצר לו – “and Ya’akov became very afraid and he was very distressed.” Commentators struggle to understand what generates such great fear in Ya’akov. After all, God promises to protect and guard him on at least two occasions. So, blessed with divine protection, why is he so scared?

Some suggest that Ya’akov fears that שמא יגרום החטא – “perhaps sin would cause [his downfall]. Yet, Kli Yakkar rejects this suggestion outright. After all, God had reiterated his Divine protection just eight days previously. What great sin could Ya’akov have possibly committed that would produce such calamitous results in such a short time? Kli Yakkar offers one suggestion: flattery (in Hebrew known as chanifah - חניפה).

When Ya’akov sends the messengers to Eisav he takes a subservient position to his brother, showering him with lavish praise and flattery: “Say to my master Eisav…” (see 32:5) Afterwards, Ya’akov inherently realizes the dictum of Chazal which states that ‘One who flatters the wicked will ultimately fall into his hands.’ Ya’akov understands that when he flatters his wicked brother he unintentionally elevates Eisav’s stature and enables his evil behavior. After all, why should the wicked change his ways if his righteous brother is happy to lavish praise upon him?

What about us? When we praise people who perpetrate problematic performances, do we realize that we encourage that behavior to continue?

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Table Talk - Vayetze 5768 - Shabbos Yerushalayim

With the ongoing talk in Israel about peace negotiations, and the current administration’s stated willingness to discuss abandoning parts of Yerushalayim to the Palestinian Authority (God forbid), the OU has designated this Shabbos as an opportunity to focus on the centrality of Yerushalayim in Judaism to enhance our connection to God’s holy city.

Not surprisingly, Ya’akov meets God at the beginning of our parshah in the future city of Yerushlayim. The Torah tells us that as he runs to Charan fleeing from his brother Eisav, ויפגע במקום וילן שם – “and he arrived at the place and he lay down there.” Ya’akov stops for the night and dreams of ladders, angels and God. But the Torah never tells us where that “place” is. Rashi explains that by calling it המקום – “the place,” we know exactly where it is, because we’ve seen that place before.

When God commands Avraham to sacrifice his beloved son Yitzchak, he also doesn’t specify the exact location. Yet, after Avraham travels for three days the Torah tells us that וירא את המקום מרחוק – “and he saw the place from a distance.” Again, the place remains nameless, but we call it הר המוריה – the location of both akeidat Yitzchak -- the binding of Yitzchak – and the prophetic dream of Ya’akov.

These two events that transpire on that mountain are only the beginning of a long history binding the Jewish people with that holy place. It’s that connection that we must rekindle and strengthen if we wish to ensure that Har Hamoriah remains a Jewish mountain. Let us take some time this Shabbos to learn about Yerushalayim, connect to the city, and commit to make some tangible effort to ensure that she remains eternally united.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Table Talk Toldos 2 - Could You Eat Avraham's Food?

You've just invented a time machine out of a Delorian (or some other nifty car), and have decided that the first person you'd like to visit is our forefather, Avraham Avinu. You get in the car, speed up to 88mph, and in a flash you're back in Cana'an basking under Avraham's tree. Naturally, Avraham runs to greet you, and before you know it, he's offering you dinner. Only after he places the tongue and roast beef in front of you do you begin to wonder: "Hey, can I eat this? Is it even kosher?" That all depends on how much you trust -- and take literally - the commentary of Rashi.
The Torah tells us that when Yitzchak attempts to journey to Egypt to avoid a famine, God appears to Yitzchak commanding him to remain in the Land of Cana'an, and God will give him the blessings of his father. Why does Avraham deserves these blessings? עֵקֶב, אֲשֶׁר-שָׁמַע אַבְרָהָם בְּקֹלִי; וַיִּשְׁמֹר, מִשְׁמַרְתִּי, מִצְו‍ֹתַי, חֻקּוֹתַי וְתוֹרֹתָי - "because that Abraham hearkened to My voice, and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws.'"
We're left to wonder what these different terms refer to. What statutes does Avraham keep? Rashi (Bereishis 26:4) immediately explains each of these terms clearly.

וישמר משמרתי - גזרות להרחקה על אזהרות שבתורה, כגון שניות לעריות ושבות לשבת:
מצותי - דברים שאילו לא נכתבו ראויין הם להצטוות כגון גזל ושפיכות דמים:
חקותי - דברים שיצר הרע ואומות העולם משיבין עליהם כגון אכילת חזיר ולבישת שעטנז שאין טעם בדבר אלא גזירת המלך וחקותיו על עבדיו:
ותורתי - להביא תורה שבעל פה, הלכה למשה מסיני:

Clearly according to Rashi, Avraham not only keeps the accepted ethical and moral laws that apply to any society. Moreover, he not only observes normative Torah law including Sha'atnez and prohibited foods. Rather, Avraham keeps everything -- the big and small, Torah and rabbinic, including the Oral Tradition and everything in-between. He wears tzitzis and washes neigel vasser in the morning, puts a blech on his stove on Shabbos, and uses a kos shelishi to make his tea on Shabbos (if he holds like R. Moshe). How does he learn all of this Torah? The Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 95) wonders the very same thing.
מהיכן למד תורה אברהם? ר' שמעון בן יוחי א' נעשו כיליותיו כשני כדין שלמים והיו נובעות תורה.
Those are some pretty knowledgeable kidneys! In any case, it seems clear that had you stopped to pick up Rashi on the way to Avraham Avinu in your time machine, while you might not have eaten the food, Rashi clearly would have.

Table Talk - Toldos 5768

Most of us consider Meah Shearim a rather religious neighborhood. From the numerous yeshivot to the seforim stores to the requested (and required) modesty restrictions, people classically associate Meah Shearim with frumkeit (religiosity). This association is really nothing new. Meah Shearim has always been a rather religious region.
While living in an area called G’rar, Yitzchak plants produce – and does well. וימצא בשנה ההיא מאה שערים ויברכהו ה' – “and he found that year ‘one hundred measures’ and God blessed him.” What are these מאה שארים (pronounced Meah Shearim) – “hundred measures?” What does Yitzchak find?
Rashi explains that after Yitzchak projects the anticipated yield for the crop that year, the field actually produces one hundred times the projected yield. Rashi adds, “And our rabbis said that this crop approximation was for the purpose of tithes.”

Siftei Chachamim (a super commentary on Rashi) wonders: why does Rashi feel the need to add this piece of information? Who cares why they approximated the field’s yield? He suggests that Judaism always frowns on measuring one’s wealth. The gemara in Baba Metzia (42a) tells us that, “We don’t find blessing in something counted and measured.” God gives His gifts whether we count them or not. For this reason, we refrain from counting our blessing, or chickens or even crops. If so, how could Yitzchak measure his expected field yield?

According to Siftei Chachamim, this must be why Rashi explains why Yitzchak counts his crop. He must measures merely for the purpose of tzedakah – to know how much to tithe from his crop, reinforcing the association between Meah Shearim and frumkeit (and tzedakah) to this day.